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Percy Heath: A Love Song

Dan McClenaghan By

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On the photos included with A Love Song, Percy Heath shows off the greatest grin in jazz since Louis Armstrong. And he has good reason to flash that smile; at eighty years young, he's just issued his first recording as a leader (can that be true, after fifty plus years in the business?), where he displays his transcendent gifts as a bass and cello player and tunesmith on a simply beautiful quartet outing.

Percy Heath is the eldest of jazz's famous Heath brothers—Albert "Tootie" Heath sits in on drums here—and was a founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet. He has played and recorded with everyone—Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, to name just a handful.

A Love Song features the unusual configuration of two basses (with Percy's cello, on "Watergate Blues") with piano and drums, for a sound that is suffused with an insistent and quietly muscular flow, full of lower register subtleties—an uncluttered, unpretentious and arresting music.

The set contains four Heath originals, John Lewis's loveliest and probably most-recorded tune, "Django"; Sir Roland Hanna's "Century Rag"; and "Hanna's Mood," from the pen of this outing's pianist, Jeb Patton.

The set opens with Heath's solo tune, the wistful "A Love Song," about loss of love. "Watergate Blues," another Heath original, brings a jaunty step into the quartet sound, with the leader plucking a piquant cello in front of Peter Washington's throbbing bass lines. John Lewis's "Django," one of jazz's most gorgeous tunes, has always seemed a perfect composition, an unquestionable classic of the genre. It gets a new treatment here, with the bass playing melody.

I pulled out the Modern Jazz Quartet's early Prestige CD of the same name and alternated the two versions for a spell. Breathtaking, both of them, masterpieces of understated chamber jazz atmosphere. Both of them. The take of "Django" on A Love Song would surely be the highlight if not for Heath's "Suite for Pop," written for his father. The second section, "Lament," especially, seems every bit as classic a tune. Time will tell.

The quartet closes with pianist Patton's "Hanna's Mood," written for his teacher and mentor, Sir Roland Hanna, with a melancholy yet still hopeful feeling.

A Love Song has the same pared down, uncluttered atmosphere as the best of the Modern Jazz Quartet outings, with the tandem basses laying a foundation of quiet strength and eternal, unshakeable serenity. A top ten disc, for sure. And essential disc for fans of MJQ, and just about everyone else, too, for that matter.


Track Listing: A Love Song, Watergate Blues, Django, Century Rag, No More Weary Blues, Suite for Pop, Hanna's Mood

Personnel: Percy Heath--cello and bass; Jeb Patton--piano; Peter Washington--bass; Albert "Tootie" Heath-drums

Title: A Love Song | Year Released: 2004

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